Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A prayer for freedom of identity, September 25, 2007 Amartya Sen
Brian Griffith (Toronto, Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Issues of Our Time) (Paperback)
Sen is so eloquent it's overkill. To a global but divided world he speaks of identity as a multi-layered matter of personal choice: "The same person can, for example, be a British citizen, of Malaysian origen, with Chinese racial characteristics, a stock broker, a non-vegitarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologer, and one who believes that God invented Darwin to test the gullible." (p. 24)

Sen notes several popular ways of dealing with identity. One he calls "identity disregard", and another is "singular affiliation".

In "identity disregard" we dismiss all shared identity, and treat each person as an economic self-interest group of one. As some proponents of this view argue, "If it's not in your interest, why have you chosen to do as you did?". Sen notes that this assumption, "makes huge idiots out of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, and rather smaller idiots out of the rest of us." (p. 21)

"Singular affiliation" on the other hand, defines people by their membership in one (only one) of their many social circles. This can be an externally imposed label, as in stereotypes of what Westerners are, or in can be self-imposed general conformity -- as when Oscar Wilde said, "Most people are other people. ... Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation".

Feeling both social and an individual, Sen launches his excellent exploration of identity in the modern world. He visits the great "West VS Non-West" divide, where he dispenses with the usual hoopla:

"... in disputing the gross and natsy generalization that members of the Islamic civilization have a belligerant culture, it is common enough to argue that they actually share a culture of peace and goodwill. But this simply replaces one stereotype with another, and furthermore, it involves accepting an implicit presumption that people who happen to be Muslim by religion would be similar in other ways as well." (p. 42)

In many corners of the world Sen shows the subtle handicaps which delimited identity can impose. He mentions South African doctor and anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele, who describes the impact of polarized identity on the AIDS crisis: The "mistrust of science that has traditionally been controlled by white people" hampers medical efforts; open discussion of the problem is often suppressed by "the fear of acknowledging an epidemic that could easily be used to fan the worst racial stereotyping". (p. 92)

Always sounding magisterial, Sen wades into the home-town issues of British multiculturalism, political correctitude, and the struggles of "globalism vs anti-globalism". He distinguishes between the desire for ethnic groups to leave one another alone, and the desire for a freedom to choose among many cultural options. To those who urge funding schools for each religion he is blunt: "It is unfair to children who have not yet had much opportunity of reasoning and choice to be put into rigid boxes guided by one specific criterion of categorization, and to be told: 'That is your identity and this is all you are going to get'." (p. 118)

To people who believe their identity is more a fate than a choice, Sen affirms we can do better: "We have to make sure, above all, that our mind is not halved by a horizon". The book's opening dedication sounds almost like a Buddhist vow to seek enlightenment: "To Antara, Nandana, Indrani, and Kabir with the hope of a world less imprisoned by illusion".

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